Home - Interpeace : Interpeace
Home - Interpeace : Interpeace
Home - Interpeace : Interpeace

Timor-Leste: Moving beyond electoral democracy

July 4, 2012
Est. Reading: 4 minutes
Photo credit: CEPAD

It is generally accepted from a procedural-minimalist perspective that holding ‘free and fair’ elections at regular intervals constitutes the main criterion in assessing the degree of democratic consolidation in any given country.

As international observers arrive in Dili to officially monitor the forthcoming parliamentary election on 07 July 2012 in Timor-Leste, the international community will be similarly eager to monitor the security situation both on polling day and immediately following the announcement of results as a decisive factor in determining the extent of democratic transition just ten years since the restoration of independence in 2002.

Limits to measuring 'success'

Nevertheless, while Interpeace’s local partner CEPAD applauds individual leaders, political parties and the general citizenry – with assistance from the international community – in what have been widely regarded as ‘successful’ presidential elections held earlier this year, we similarly caution against limiting measures of ‘success’ to the existence – or rather, absence – of widespread civil and/or political unrest.

Elections in a post-conflict setting

Indeed, the absence of widespread violence throughout the electoral period can be too often equated with political maturity in post-conflict societies undergoing the transition to democracy. Elections can be, by their very nature, a conflict-inducing process, as they are characterized by the coexistence between those who want to occupy positions of power and those who resist the loss of power. In new democracies, where often poverty is widespread and democratic institutions are weak, this process is bound to be underscored by varying degrees of tension.

Timor-Leste is no exception

Timor-Leste proves no exception in this regard, as the elite have shown a tendency to use, and misuse, historical and socio-cultural narratives – including the instrumentalization of state institutions and legislation – to retain privilege. Ironically, this very system of electoral representation may be used as a mechanism to further legitimize these politics of exclusion in 2012.

Consolidation of democracy in Timor-Leste

To this extent, as the United Nations prepares to downscale its presence for the second time, it is therefore important to bear in mind several broader issues at play concerning the consolidation of representative democracy in Timor-Leste: namely, stark weaknesses in the political party system and the polarization of citizens beyond the centralization of political, economic and social power in the capital, Dili.

A 'festival of democracy' or a 'show of populism'?

Indeed, while many Timorese affectionately refer to the current electoral period as a 'festival of democracy,' the proliferation and fragmentation of political parties in the formation of political society in the post-independence period may nevertheless pose significant challenges to the overall democratization process in Timor-Leste.

In the absence of widely disseminated – and at times, clear – programmatic policy platforms, both individual leaders and political parties risk reducing the electoral process to a show of populism based on historical, familial and political allegiances, which have often been formed in the period prior to independence. Undermining due democratic process, such allegiances play a key role in influencing extensive ‘closed door’ pre- and post-electoral ‘deals’ between stakeholders vying for ministries and positions of power in the formation of political coalitions and the new Government. The result is a somewhat chaotic and frequently changing political landscape of fleeting party alliances.

The funding of political parties

CEPAD remains similarly apprehensive concerning the lack of serious investigation into reports of illegal campaign fundraising by political parties in the lead-up to the parliamentary election. Further doubt is raised over fresh allegations that a number of individuals and companies associated with such activities may be implicated in the award of a major public construction contract to rehabilitate Dili’s road network, including construction of the Comoro Bridge, reportedly without having undergone the due tender process required for an award this size. A definitive reading on the legality of this issue should be conferred to the competent judicial and investigative authorities, should there be any truth behind these allegations.

Corruption, collusion and nepotism

This is not to suggest that such practices are limited to major political parties; nor do we suggest that they are limited to the 2012 election period. Indeed, the widespread practice adopted by political parties of garnering support through providing ‘incentives’ either in cash or kind to would-be supporters – while understandable to a certain degree given traditional and socio-economic considerations – should also remain a concern; as such practices, when overpowering the importance of party platforms and principles, risk undermining the ongoing democratic process.

To this extent, these two examples highlight a narrative which often eludes public debate on analyses of democratic consolidation in Timor-Leste: rather than gaining the electorate’s support through progressive political and economic programmes, political parties have increasingly focused their efforts on populism and electoral clientelism through a system of patron-client networks - or ‘aman sarani, oan sarani’ (godparents, godchildren) relationships.

Milestone events in 2012

It should be noted, however, that such observations are not made in an effort to detract from the overall importance of these milestone events; indeed, the 2012 parliamentary election in Timor-Leste, only the second since the restoration of independence, will prove a critical turning point in the country’s ongoing political maturity. Nor do we underestimate the vast achievements Timor-Leste has made in the transition to democracy thus far; or suggest that the project of democratic consolidation is a linear – nor quick-fire – set of complex social, political and economic processes.

Calling for a broader understanding of democracy

Rather, we call for caution in moving forward beyond the 2012 electoral period and encourage citizens to adopt a broader understanding of democracy beyond the period immediately surrounding the presidential and parliamentary elections. Similarly, we ask the international community in its assessment of the varying degrees of electoral ‘success’ to take into account these broader issues of concern, in an effort to build a more effective party system with a focus on leadership, accountability and policy-oriented politics.

A need for broad-based participation

In this regard, encouraging broad-based, inclusive and sustained civic participation in all areas of political, economic and cultural life will prove paramount to democratic consolidation in years to come, as Timor-Leste seeks to move beyond the institutional dimensions of statebuilding to incorporate the internalization of democratic norms and foster greater national unity countrywide.